A couple years ago, I made a breakthrough with character creation and development, and my beta reader’s reaction to my characters shifted pretty dramatically for the positive. From there it’s developed further, and I’ve started to look at characters a little differently. Of course, I didn’t really look at them at all, before, but I went from not really thinking about it, to very deliberately crafting characters to suit their roles in my stories.
Robert J. Sawyer has a good post on characters, so I won’t repeat what he says, but summarize: good characters aren’t people, they’re carefully assembled robots who do exactly the job the author needs them to do in the story. As in, if the author needs a character to do something, they create a character who can and would do it. You craft them for maximum effect in the story.
What I’ve been observing the last year or so, in my creation of characters, is not so much what to do, but a tool to break down how to do it. Because the best advice is practical and easy to put to use, right?
I’ve played a few different tabletop RPGs, not extensively, but enough to understand how they work and enjoy them. Mainly D&D and White Wolf World of Darkness. D&D, I like the character creation aspect less – I’ve always found World of Darkness character creation to be more engaging, and much more about creating a character rather than creating a dungeon crawling toon. It brings the focus more onto the characters and brings their character traits into the story. The Game Master in World of Darkness tends to be expected more to focus on the character traits the players have chosen and work them into the story.
I didn’t come to the idea of creating characters for novels that way directly. In fact, it likely would have made for dry characters if I had, because the traits in the books are relatively limited, and not necessarily useful for my own fiction. But now that I’ve written more stuff, and seen people react to my characters, I’m realizing how, when I make characters, I don’t conceive of them as whole beings, but as a collection of traits, similar to the merits and flaws of the White Wolf system. So much so, that there have been times when I’ve piled on too many character traits on characters, and had to split the character into two characters. In that case, I looked at all the character traits, and worked out which ones to give to each new character.
Now, as often as not, the characters I’m making up don’t have the magical abilities that encompass much of what the merits and flaws I’m comparing them to in the White Wolf system. But there are some of the merits and flaws even in the WW system that I do use. For example, contacts, or bravery, or cowardice, cleverness, ability to lie convincingly, a temper, mentor (as in, a character has or has had a mentor), allies (character has friends or family they can turn to for help), debts (character has someone they can hit up for a favour, or vice versa), the character might have a chronic illness, missing limb, or just be bat shit crazy, or fanatically religious. Or rich (“resources”).
These things may seem obvious, but I read a fair bit of amateur fiction, and see very little of this sort of thing appearing. Writers come up with a character concept, but often don’t go further than the characters profession, or general station in life (orphan, mercenary, prince/princess, priest/priestess, soldier, tavern wench, etc.) They come up with a single defining characteristic, but it’s often not even a unique one.
I think it’s in watching some of the newer tv shows out there that I’ve seen more character traits added to fill out characters. The best example I can think of is Community. You have your group of characters, the leader, the jock, the token black woman, the womanizing older man, the ditzy hot girl, the more mature, standoffish girl, and the geek. But each of those is much more than that – the leader is a former lawyer who got caught not having actually trained as a lawyer. The jock is a closet geek and doesn’t want to play football anymore. The token black woman is a single mom and deeply christian. The womanizing older man is filthy rich, son of a corporate CEO, and member of a thinly veiled copy of scientology. The ditzy hot girl is a recovering drug addict and jewish. The standoffish girl is an atheist and an activist, but only for attention. And the geek is a muslim with an aspergers diagnosis who wants to be a film director but his father wants him to take over the falafel business. And I’m missing tons of stuff.
It’s a great show besides, but that’s the thing that’s stood out to me to most, as I develop my skills in crafting characters, and then I realized how much it was like the merits and flaws system in White Wolf. I may have fun with this in the future.